The mobile game has official licenses from the NFL and NFL Players Association. NFL Clash will launch later this year as a mobile-first title, and is already being tested by some fans. And while it isn’t revealing the gameplay yet, the company described it as “Supercell style,” meaning mobile strategy games like Clash Royale.
Game veterans Jon Middleton and Pete Wanat started the San Francisco company to make head-to-head sports games. Nifty Games previously announced a partnership with the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) to bring an NBA basketball game to mobile devices in the near future.
Middleton said in an interview with GamesBeat that NFL Clash is an innovative take on mobile football games, offering fans a new way to play head-to-head football game in just minutes. With mobile-first game design, NFL Clash lets people play wherever they are. Nifty Games is focused on delivering NFL fans fast, yet deep gameplay specifically designed for mobile, Middleton said.
“NFL Clash will seek the widest possible audience for football,” Middleton said.
The founders said they feel a gap exists in the market for sports fans who want an experience that can last four or five minutes, rather than hours. In this kind of game, players can play against each other in real time. And it could be important as a way for sports fans to scratch an itch when they can’t even watch sports on TV.
“As bad as it is and the obviously much-needed quarantine and the cancellation of sports, it’s been very cool to watch the fact that sports video games have risen to the occasion to satisfy fans,” Middleton said. “It’s an ancillary product that is filling the shoes of the main product that can’t be played.”
“You see ESPN broadcasting the 2K League with NBA players at the controls,” Middleton said.
Wanat added, “What NASCAR has done with their simulation racing on TV is so unbelievably great.”
Not a simulation
The big rival, of course, is Electronic Arts’ NFL Madden games, which are available across all platforms including mobile, where Nifty Games is focused. To date, mobile sports games have been casual mini-games or simulations migrated from gaming consoles.
“The landscape of football games has always traditionally been simulation-based,” said Wanat. “They are doing a great job. We grew up playing Madden. We love those games. But when it comes to mobile free to play, the NFL was looking for a game that is a more casual experience, but still has all the authenticity that an NFL and an NFLPA game can bring to bear.”
That means it won’t have tons of plays and every rule like simulation games do. This is “infinitely more accessible,” Wanat said. “We want it to be infinitely more playable and a much quicker session to play. So that you can jump in, have a blast, and play multiple times.”
“Even the folks who do play Madden can play,” Middleton said. “We’re looking to boil down the authentic emotional attachment to the NFL and its players in a 4 minute-to-5 minute game.”
The NFL approves
Of course, EA isn’t going to worry about a 15-person company. But the NFL sees potential here.
Rachel Hoagland, vice president, head of gaming and esports for the NFL, said in a statement that the NFL has always been aware that a large number of fans love to engage sports through video games. She said the NFL is looking to bolster its offering on mobile devices and is thrilled at the built-for-mobile clash-style gaming that Nifty Games will deliver.
“We view Golf Clash as a major inspiration,” Wanat said. “If you look at that game, it’s an outstanding product. There’s a proven audience for people who want to play head-to-head sports games in manageable, bite-sized chunks, with much quicker sessions. We look at all the “clash” titles, not just Clash Royale.”
March Capital Partners led the funding. Gregory Milken, managing director of March Capital Partners (and a speaker at our upcoming GamesBeat Summit Digital event), said in a statement that Nifty has a massive opportunity to deliver high-quality, fresh experiences with mobile sports games. He said he shares Nifty Games’ creative and business passion, and he is impressed with the experienced and talented team Nifty has assembled.
Previous investors Axiomatic Gaming and Defy.VC also participated in the latest funding round. New investors include Vulcan Capital, Courtside Ventures, Transcend Fund, Century Game and OneTeam Ventures, an investment vehicle created by RedBird Capital, the NFLPA, MLBPA, MLSPA, USWNTPA, and WNBPA.
Axiomatic’s leaders include Peter Guber, Ted Leonsis, Jeff Vinik, and Bruce Karsh. In 2016, it acquired a controlling interest in esports organization Team Liquid. Middleton said the company has been strategic in selecting game, tech, and sports investors. Nifty Games has now raised $15 million to date, and the latest round was oversubscribed, Middleton said.
“It’s a good amount of money to get the job done of delivering some really cool sports games,” Middleton said.
Nifty Games’s group of investors to date also includes ownership from the NFL, NBA, MLB, MLS, NHL, and esports.
A seasoned team
For 20 years, Middleton has held executive leadership roles in digital content (Madefire) within game publishing (Pulse Entertainment) and game hardware (Mad Catz Interactive).
He was formerly founder and CEO of Boom In-Game Music, which was acquired by LiveGamer in 2008. Prior to that, he cofounded Massive In-Game Advertising, which Microsoft acquired in 2006.
Before forming Massive, Middleton was CEO of Eight Cylinders, a game and broadband content authoring tools company acquired by On2.com in 2000 and subsequently Google.
Wanat, chief product officer, was formerly vice president of production at Universal Games. In that previous role, he helped deliver Despicable Me: Minion Rush, the fifth most-downloaded game of all time, and top ten grossing games for major brand franchises such as Jurassic Park.
Wanat has also been making games for 20 years, and he worked on many of the top sports video games of all time, including NBA Jam, Frank Thomas Big Hurt Baseball, NFL Quarterback Club, and All-Star Baseball.
He said the company will tweak and tune the game based on feedback from various beta tests.
“We’re going to make the best types of sports games possible,” Wanat said. “The DNA of Nifty is to know free-to-play games and to be passionate about sports.”